Saudi accused of threat to Khashoggi UN investigator is human rights chief
Kirchgaessner* – The Guardian
Awwad al-Awwad, former aide of crown prince,
denies threatening to ‘take care of’ Agnès Callamard
The Saudi official who is alleged to have twice
issued threats against the independent UN investigator Agnès Callamard is
the head of the kingdom’s human rights commission, and formerly served as an
aide to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Awwad al-Awwad is alleged by a person familiar with the
matter to have twice threatened to “take care of” Callamard at a January 2020
meeting with senior human rights officials in Geneva.
The Guardian first reported news of the threats earlier this
week following an interview with Callamard in which she recalled being alerted
to the threats by her UN colleagues. On Wednesday, the office of the UN high
commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) confirmed Callamard’s account.
“We confirm that the
details in the Guardian story about the threat aimed at Agnès Callamard are
accurate. After the threat was made, OHCHR informed Ms Callamard herself about
it, as well as UN security and the president of the Human Rights Council, who
in turn informed the relevant authorities,” said Rupert Colville, the
spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights.
The Guardian on Wednesday told a spokesperson for the Saudi
embassy in Washington that it was intending to publish a story identifying
Awwad as the individual who had made the alleged threats, and asked the Saudi
government for a comment. Awwad, as well as being a former aide to the crown
prince, served as the kingdom’s ambassador to Germany.
On Thursday, Awwad published a series of tweets in which he
said it had come to his attention that Callamard and some UN officials believed
he had issued the threats, which he denied “in the strongest terms”. He also
raised the possibility that the story could have been “concocted” in order to
distract people from “the important work we are doing to advance human rights
in Saudi Arabia”.
“While I cannot recall the exact conversations, I never
would have desired or threatened any harm upon a UN-appointed individual, or
anyone for that matter,” he tweeted. “I am disheartened that anything I have
said could be interpreted as a threat. I am an advocate for human rights and I
spend my day working to ensure those values are upheld.”
He added: “As a former diplomat I understand the critical
importance of dialogue even with people we may strongly disagree with … I see
threats against the personal integrity of any individual as against my moral
code. And they are a violation of the most sacred tenets of my religion.”
Callamard is a French national who has served as a special
rapporteur on extrajudicial killings since 2016. She will take on a new role as
secretary general of Amnesty International later this month.
The Guardian has learned that the UN took the alleged
threats against Callamard seriously enough for officials in France to privately
raise the issue with Saudi Arabia.
According to Callamard’s own account, based on what she was
told by the UN, other Saudi officials who were present at the meeting sought to
urge UN officials that Awwad’s remarks – that Callamard could be “taken care
of” if the UN did not rein her in – ought not to be taken seriously. They later
left the room while Awwad stayed behind and allegedly repeated his remark,
saying that the “issue” needed to be taken care of.
The comments, which were perceived to be a threat, were made
at a time when Callamard’s investigations were putting pressure on the kingdom.
In June 2019, Callamard released a report that found
“credible evidence” that Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, was responsible
for the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
She was also investigating the alleged hacking of the Amazon
chief executive, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, by Saudi Arabia.
Callamard and David Kaye, who served at the time as a
special rapporteur for the freedom of expression, published a statement on 22
January calling for an investigation into Bin Salman’s possible personal
involvement in the deployment of spyware on Bezos’s phone. They also revealed
that they had received information that a WhatsApp account belonging to the
crown prince had allegedly sent digital spyware that enabled surveillance of
Bezos’s phone. Saudi Arabia denied the allegation.
While Callamard and Kaye’s investigation was not public at
the time of Awwad’s 20 January meetings with UN officials in Geneva, the
investigators had sent
a letter to the Saudi authorities days earlier – on 17 January 2020 –
alerting the kingdom to the detailed allegations unearthed in their
investigation and that they were planning to publish their findings. It is not
clear whether Awwad was aware of the letter when he visited Geneva.
Callamard and Kaye wrote in their letter: “We may publicly
express our concerns in the near future as, in our view, the information upon
which the press release will be based is sufficiently reliable to indicate a
matter warranting immediate attention. We also believe that the wider public
should be alerted to the potential implications of the above-mentioned
allegations. The press release will indicate that we have been in contact with
your Excellency’s Government’s [sic] to clarify the issue/s in question.”
The Saudi press release said Awwad had highlighted “a danger
of politicising human rights” and called upon the Human Rights Council to “to
unify efforts in the field of human rights and to avoid politicisation”.
‘The EU did not rise
to the challenge’: UN special rapporteur on Europe’s failure to fill human
Agnès Callamard, about
to start as Amnesty International’s secretary general, paints dire global
picture following disdain for human rights of Trump administration, China and
Russia. Callamard’s most high-profile investigation was into the journalist
Jamal Khashoggi’s killing at the hands of Saudi Arabian agents in the Saudi
consulate in Istanbul, a brutal attack that Callamard declared in 2019 was
probably sanctioned by the state. Her role, she said, always required her to
fight, in part because she faced obstacles “at every turn” at the United Nations,
which she said did not provide adequate support for human rights work.